Sky Bet League Two: Outright preview for the play-offs with best bets and predictions

Our outright preview of the League Two play-offs

The Sky Bet League Two play-offs are going ahead despite the season ending early. Tom Carnduff picks a winner in his outright preview.


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2pts Cheltenham to be promoted at 3/1

2pts Exeter & Cheltenham both to make the play-off final at 5/2

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I've never believed that the play-offs are a lottery. A host of factors go into a usual play-off scenario; recent form, performances in big matches and results against each other to name a few. There are ways to work through scenarios. However, this year isn't a usual play-off scenario.

We have to acknowledge the circumstances. These four teams have secured their spots after a points-per-game equation was applied and they've only played 36/37 games as opposed to the usual 46. They've not kicked a ball competitively since March and now they have around two weeks to prepare for a series of future-defining games.

We simply can't view this edition of the play-offs as the same as any other; that the enforced absence as thrown much into disarray. It'll still have the same excitement that comes with any promotion battle, but it must be accepted that making predictions doesn't involve the same process, the same calculation, as in previous seasons.


Sky Bet League Two play-off schedule

First legs - Thursday 18th June

  • Colchester v Exeter - 17:15
  • Northampton v Cheltenham - 19:45

Second legs - Monday 22nd June

  • Exeter v Colchester - 17:15
  • Cheltenham v Northampton - 20:00

Final (Wembley Stadium)

  • Monday 29th June - 19:30

The break came with these four teams experiencing mixed fortunes. Cheltenham were in fine form and enjoying a six-game unbeaten run of which five ended in victory. For Northampton, they'd lost five of their previous seven while Colchester had been beaten four times over the same period. Exeter had failed to win in any of their last four.

It's not right to simply dismiss those results but they can no longer constitute form; it's been far too long between those fixtures and now. It could be said that Colchester and Northampton might have dropped out of the top-seven altogether based on their previous results, but instead they're handed a huge opportunity.

So how do we actually predict who will win a play-off scenario like this? In deciding a winner, the following four factors will be considered:

  • Form at the beginning of the season
  • Results following any postponed fixtures
  • Results against other play-off teams
  • Results in quick succession

This does have the feel of the start of a new season given the time off, not a way of finishing the current campaign. Results following postponed fixtures also gives us some insight how teams adjust following previously unscheduled weeks off and the games against each other are a good indicator of how the teams match up, particularly if they were played post-Christmas.

Analysing the results for a team over a midweek period where three games have been played is another way of judging how well these teams adjust to fixtures in quick succession; these play-offs will last just 11 days with the final at the unusual time of 19:30 on a Monday.

Of course, this formula may have flaws. We simply can't know for certain how teams will react following the lengthy delay and some may hit the ground running while others don't. That's just a part of this new scenario. Some may use this to form the basis of a case to back the outsiders and that's fine. Nobody can definitively come up with an answer for how this will play out.

But this is how we're going to approach it - starting by looking at the two semi-finals.


Colchester v Exeter

Tom Parkes scores for Exeter

Previous results:

  • Colchester 2-2 Exeter (December 29)
  • Exeter 0-0 Colchester (January 25)

Nothing separated these two sides across their league meetings. Exeter do hold the advantage of recent play-off experience as they made the final in 2017, when beaten by Coventry at Wembley.

Analysing results following postponed games barely applies to these two. Colchester saw their mid-November meeting with Bradford called off and the following week they drew 1-1 with Cheltenham. For Exeter, they've played through the international breaks.

If these two teams enter the play-offs in similar fashion to the start of the season, it'll be Exeter who reach the final. They were unbeaten across their opening five fixtures, winning three, while Colchester managed just one victory from their five.

Opening five games:

  • Exeter: W | W | D | D | W
  • Colchester: D | L | L | D | W

Neither side started the season with easier fixtures than the other. Colchester had to face Plymouth while Exeter came up against Swindon; those two sides went on to secure automatic promotion with top-three finishes.

Results in quick succession:

  • Exeter: DDW | DWD | LLW | WDW | DLL | WWW | DDL
  • Colchester: LDW | LWW | LDW | WDD | WDDW | WLL

The above is the cluster of results for each team when they have played three or more games over a seven-day period in the league this season. Typically, EFL clubs have midweek fixtures at least once a month, which contribute to the above.

These play-offs will take place over an 11-day period, but just four days separate the two legs. The quick turnaround gives little time for either to reflect on the previous result as they look to secure their place at Wembley.

Remarkably, both teams have lost just five games during busy periods and both have posted eight wins. However, Exeter have seen four of these periods end unbeaten while the figure stands at two for Colchester. It's a close contest, but Exeter just edge it in this category.

Verdict: Exeter progress to the final at 5/6


Northampton v Cheltenham

Luke Varney scores for Cheltenham

Previous results:

  • Northampton 1-1 Cheltenham (December 29)
  • Cheltenham 2-1 Northampton (February 25)

A weird coincidence that these two play-off fixtures took place on December 29 and both ended in draws. Cheltenham have the better record though given their victory at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium in the meeting at the end of February; that was around three weeks before football was suspended.

A significant factor of Cheltenham's season is that they've proven to be a tough team to beat. Their six defeats is the lowest in Sky Bet League Two and their third-lowest in the entire EFL.

That sets them up well here considering Northampton have lost 13 of their 37 games this season. As a play-off team, being tough to beat is crucial across the three fixtures.

Cheltenham have also had the experience of multiple games being postponed. Their record stands at one win, one draw and one loss; that makes it hard to make a certain judgement on their response following weeks off.

Opening five games:

  • Northampton: L | D | L | W | L
  • Cheltenham: L | W | D | W | D

Cheltenham also edge it on their opening to the season, aided by the fact that they don't lose many games. In fact, their opener was a 1-0 defeat to Leyton Orient; they would only lose one other fixture up until the beginning of November.

For Northampton, they were 19th in the standings after five fixtures with three defeats and just one victory. Similar form here would lead to them crashing out of the play-offs.

Results in quick succession:

  • Northampton: LWL | WWD | WWW | LDW | LLL | WLW
  • Cheltenham: DWD | WWW | LDD | LWW | WWW

Both have managed to put together decent runs of results in the league with fixtures in quick succession, although Cheltenham have managed three consecutive wins on two separate occasions.

In fairness, Northampton managed that in October but they've also had a run of three consecutive losses. The Cobblers' contrast in this area is much greater than Cheltenham's, who have only experienced one block without victory.

Verdict: Cheltenham progress to the final at 5/6


Play-off team mini-league

Colchester will be hoping that they can achieve promotion

TEAM W-D-L GD PTS

  1. Cheltenham | 2-3-0 | +3 | 9
  2. Exeter | 1-3-1 | -1 | 6
  3. Colchester | 1-3-1 | -1 | 6
  4. Northampton | 1-1-3 | -1 | 4

Cheltenham:

  • 1-1 D v Northampton
  • 2-1 W v Northampton
  • 0-0 D v Exeter
  • 1-1 D v Colchester
  • 2-0 W v Colchester

Exeter:

  • 2-2 D v Colchester
  • 0-0 D v Colchester
  • 0-0 D v Cheltenham
  • 3-2 W v Northampton
  • 0-2 L v Northampton

Colchester:

  • 2-2 D v Exeter
  • 0-0 D v Exeter
  • 1-1 D v Cheltenham
  • 0-2 L v Cheltenham
  • 1-0 W v Northampton

Northampton:

  • 1-1 D v Cheltenham
  • 1-2 L v Cheltenham
  • 2-3 L v Exeter
  • 2-0 W v Exeter
  • 0-1 L v Colchester

Our predicted final

Matt Jay and Luke Varney exchange words

Previous results:

  • Exeter 0-0 Cheltenham

Nothing could separate the two sides when they played out a goalless draw in mid-November. The game at Cheltenham was originally due to be played on April 4 or what would have been matchday 42.

Opening five games:

  • Exeter: W | W | D | D | W
  • Cheltenham: L | W | D | W | D

Both sides enjoyed strong starts to the season but Exeter edge it with three wins and two draws. Cheltenham's opening day defeat was followed by a four-game unbeaten run.

Exeter sat top of the League Two standings after five games with Cheltenham in seventh. Four points separated the two sides but Cheltenham did boast the better goal difference.

Results in quick succession:

  • Exeter: DDW | DWD | LLW | WDW | DLL | WWW | DDL
  • Cheltenham: DWD | WWW | LDD | LWW | WWW

It's clear with two blocks of three wins, Cheltenham boast the best record of the play-off teams in this area. Three of those blocks also finished unbeaten compared to Exeter's two, although the Grecians have been involved in more.

Verdict: Cheltenham to be promoted at 3/1


Odds correct at 1200 BST (12/06/20)

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